Chernobyl: The day lasts more than a hundred years

By Axel  Reiserer

Construction cranes at chernobyl

The EBRD has been involved in the efforts to clean up the site and transform it into an environmentally safe and secure state since 1997.

For one of his most beautiful novels, the acclaimed Kyrgyz writer Chingiz Aitmatov has chosen a line from a poem by Boris Pasternak as the title: And Longer than a Century Lasts the Day. A better description of the task to overcome the legacy of the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in 1986 can hardly be found. The disaster happened within seconds, but resolution may well take a century. The day that dawned in Chernobyl on 26 April 1986 at 01:23:40 when reactor 4 exploded has not yet ended.

EBRD administrates the Chernobyl shelter fund

The EBRD has been involved in the efforts to clean up the site and transform it into an environmentally safe and secure state since 1997. It was then that the G7 countries (Russia was admitted as a member one year later, thus making it the G8) and the government of Ukraine agreed on a joint approach to deal with the unresolved issue of Chernobyl. After the accident a so-called sarcophagus was erected in extremely hazardous conditions and under intense time pressure, but from the outset it was clear that this would only be a temporary solution. The international community then decided to appoint the EBRD as administrator and manager of the Chernobyl Shelter Fund. Over the ensuing years, 23 countries and the European Community became contributors to the fund, which now has binding pledges worth some € 800 million.

Seeking a permananent solution for nuclear waste

These funds are being spent on the transformation of Chernobyl under a comprehensive master plan. The most visible and spectacular project within this framework is the New Safe Confinement which will contain the remnants of the reactor for at least 100 years, during which time a permanent solution for the nuclear waste must be found. On 17 September 2007 the long-standing efforts and commitment of the international community and the EBRD came to fruition when a contract was signed for the construction of this giant, arch-shaped structure which would be big enough to house London’s St Paul’s Cathedral. A contract for the Interim Storage Facility-2 was also signed.

Vince Novak, Director of the EBRD’s Nuclear Safety Department, says: “The signing of these two contracts is of historic significance: we now have solutions and plans for the two most important and difficult tasks. Twenty-one years on, it may seem as though it’s taken us all a long time to reach this point, but you cannot imagine the level of complexity and difficulty involved in the implementation.”

Safe Confinement

The New Safe Confinement is the pièce de résistance of the Shelter Implementation Plan. But because it is such a spectacular project it is easy to overlook how much has already been achieved over the past ten years: the existing sarcophagus has been stabilised to eliminate the danger of its sudden collapse, new facilities have been constructed, new safety and emergency regulations have been put into place and the site has been prepared in terms of infrastructure, safety and access to enable the assembly of the new structure. In total, more than 85 contracts have been finished in more than five million work hours. Over two decades after the accident, Chernobyl very much resembles the secret launch site Aitmatov describes so vividly in his novel. More than 135,000 people were evacuated from the area after the explosion of reactor 4. The 30 kilometre exclusion zone around the plant will remain uninhabitable for decades.

Working to mitigate the effects of the 1986 accident is a whole new experience for all parties concerned – from the people on the ground to the representatives of the donor governments.

Proven progress

Ten years of preparations, discussions and negotiations have demonstrated that progress and success are possible in the most complicated matters when all parties concerned act together – from the bottom to top and top to bottom. This is not always easy, but it is the only way forward. The EBRD is well aware that a milestone agreement has been signed, but that the job is not finished by far (yet). As Aitmatov’s writes: “Giving up is simply not an option.”